Tesla wins back some acclaim with Car and Driver listing

Tesla is shrugging off its downgrade from Consumer Reports, as the Model S has been named one of Car and Driver magazine’s 10 best cars of 2016.

The honor didn’t just praise the Model S’s performance. It says Tesla is redefining the car business. “The Model S still points a spotlight on the auto industry’s complacency,” the review states. “To drive a Tesla Model S is to re-examine how a car and its driver should interact.”

Tesla is indeed doing things that other car manufacturers are only beginning to dream about. One of the most notable is continual over-the-air software updates that take place after the car is purchased. “Even after you purchase or lease a Model S, the EV many not be regarded as perfect enough by Tesla’s standards,” writes Cynthia Shahan in EV Obsession. “No loss, in fact – your Tesla will keep on evolving after it is in your garage. Tesla’s software updates keep a Model S that has already been purchased continually improving.”

One of the areas where these improvements are taking place is in self-driving capacity. Tesla founder Elon Musk is now convinced that self-driving cars are the wave of the future. Google has made progress with its camera-laden cars that are building an inventory of every street in America. But Tesla is approaching the same problem as a company-wide undertaking. Its cars are building an inventory of driving experience that is shared across the entire fleet.

“Everyone I’ve spoken with in the auto industry thinks that full autonomy will probably happen, but they also know that in order to achieve full autonomy, massive amounts of data will have to be crunched and lots of money will have to be invested in upgrading the tech that currently allows cars to manage the cruise-control plus autonomy we now enjoy on a limited basis,” write Matthew DeBord in Business Insider.

Tesla has a fleet of some 90,000 cars, roughly, on the road right now that it can use as a vast test platform. Every Autopilot-enabled Tesla is already feeding data back to the mother ship, providing a basis for tweaking the technology for future updates. Tesla’s vehicles are quite literally learning the roads that they drive on and are enriching the company’s overall mapping efforts. This is something of a secret weapon for Tesla autonomous-driving initiatives: Its entire fleet can learn to drive itself.

Musk likens the non-autonomous vehicles to the horse in the days of early automobiles. “I actually think at the point at which cars being made that have full autonomy = that any cars that are being made that don’t have full autonomy will have negative value,” he said last month. “It’ll be like owning a horse. You’re really doing it for sentimental reasons.” Model S drivers are already noticing improvements in their cruise control. Eventually they may slip into the self-driving mode almost unaware.

As far as the Consumer Reports complaint that the Model S had “reliability” problems, Tesla says it has already fixed the issue. As Paul Shea reports in LearnBonds:

The issue with the drive units in early buildings of the Model S was simple, says Musk. The firm had humans putting grease on the parts, and humans were bad at the job. Some of the older units simply didn’t have enough grease applied to the spline, but Tesla has “transitioned to automatic great injection into the spline of the large drive unit.”

In fact, Musk is now talking about improving the drive unit endurance from approximately 200,000 miles to a million miles, meaning they never wear out. “A one-million-mile car is an incredible idea, and it’s something that may only be possible in an EV,” Shea writes. “The number of moving parts in EVs means that they should have lower wear-and-tear, and be easier to maintain.”

On the factory front, Tesla seems to be moving along better than anticipated. The company says that its gigafactory in Reno is up and running and already producing batteries for the highly anticipated Model 3. The operation wasn’t supposed to be this far along until early 2016. In addition, Tesla is reportedly negotiating to build another gigafactory in China to expand his operations there. Musk announced the plans at China’s Tsinghau University, although he didn’t provide any details, according to Reuters. At the same time, the company denied a report in Bloomberg that it is planning to build a similar factory in Germany.

Meanwhile, the mystery challenger to Tesla’s lead in the EV market continued to make headlines, even though it has yet to put a shovel in the ground. Faraday Future plans to make a $1 billion investment in a new factory somewhere in the West that will turn out its first electric cars by 2017. This would be twice as fast as Tesla’s inaugural, since Musk’s company launched in 2003 and produced its first car in 2008. The company would be moving down the learning curve. Faraday reportedly is funded by Chinese billionaire Jia Yueting, who has made his fortune in online video. Faraday is named after Michael Faraday, the discoverer of induced electrical currents, just as Tesla is named after Nikolai Tesla, the inventor of alternating current.

A second potential rival is also taking shape with funding from Silicon Valley. Sequoia Capital, one of the oldest investment firms in the Valley, has funded NextEV, a China-based electric car maker. Sequoia already has an office in China with 50 employees. “We think the EV sector has great potential and NextEV has a very strong founding team,” the company told Fortune.

As DeBord writes: “Regardless of how one feels about how Tesla got to where it is now and where it may wind up, the company has provided tremendous leadership for startup automakers, electric vehicles and autonomous driving.” Can’t argue that.

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